Monday Matters (June 21, 2021)

3-1

 

Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits thou hast given me,
for all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,
may I know thee more clearly,
love thee more dearly,
and follow thee more nearly, day by day.
Amen.
-Richard of Chichester

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
-Thomas Merton

Follow me

At a gathering last week, I was given opportunity to reflect on the spiritual path, and specifically on what it means to try to navigate that path as a follower of Jesus. That led me to think of how many times Jesus meets someone and says: “Follow me.” A bit of research indicated that there are 22 occasions described in the gospels where that happens. I can’t think of anything Jesus says more often. That means it’s probably worth paying attention to.

Jesus called the first disciples saying: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Note that the gospels never record the disciples catching any fish without Jesus’ help. In this call to follow, Jesus seems to say: “I’ll take who you are and what you do, even if you’re not that great at it.” He puts those disciples to work for the Jesus movement, transforming their vocation to serve the way of love.

Jesus called Matthew the tax collector, simply saying: “Follow me.” Right after that, Jesus went to the local pub with Matthew’s creepy, seedy, duplicitous friends. The clergy of the day passed a resolution condemning such consorting. But when Jesus called Matthew, Jesus seems to say: “I’ll take you where you are, no matter what you’ve done. I’ll meet you with grace.”

Jesus called an unnamed person, saying “Follow me.” The person responded by saying: “I’ll get right on it, but I have some other things I need to attend to first.” (e.g., burying a family member.) It may sound harsh, but Jesus seems to say: “Don’t let the stuff of life get in the way of following me, even the good stuff.” That’s probably something for good church folk to pay attention to, as we fill up schedules with lots of really important and noble things and find we’ve not got time or energy for the relationship of discipleship.

Jesus called a rich young ruler, saying “Follow me.” This young man had done everything right. He was deeply religious. Jesus seemed to like the guy. He commended him for his faithfulness. But Jesus also noted that there was one missing element. The young man had to give up his possessions. Apparently, that was a bridge too far. The young man went away sad, and Jesus seemed sad too. I wonder what happened to the guy.

Most of these stories come early on in the gospels, as Jesus is putting his team together. One of the stories comes at the end of the gospel of John. It’s the story of Jesus’ encounter with Peter. A mirror image of Peter’s three-time denial of Jesus, Jesus asks three times if Peter loves him. Peter affirms that he does love Jesus. He is then commissioned to care for Jesus’ sheep. The episode ends with Jesus saying: “Follow me.” It’s the way that Peter steps into a future that may be unclear. Maybe that’s the way we’re meant to step into the future as well.

If the past two years have taught us anything, it is that we do not know what the future holds. Aspects of the pandemic and coincident crises of economic challenge and racial reckoning may not, could not have been anticipated. As we daily step into an unknown future (Who knows what will happen as soon as you stop reading this?), maybe the best thing for us to do is to hear Jesus’ call to us. He simply says: “Follow me.”

Then we get to figure out what on earth that means. It becomes a reminder that at the core, our spiritual path as part of the Jesus movement, is the truth that we are not alone. It’s an invitation to a living relationship with the Holy One. Jesus comes to us with truth and grace, truth about who we are and the challenges we face, grace to promise presence with us. That relationship, that act of following is about knowing what he teaches, practicing what he preaches. It’s about embracing his call to service, which helps us see who he is. It’s about a life of prayer, which is really conversation which involves as much listening as talking. It’s a life sustained by bread and wine, holy communion.

It’s true that we do not know what the future holds. But in this journey of faith, we claim to know who holds the future. That Holy One leads us in the way of love. All we need to do is follow.

-Jay Sidebotham


Ready to help the folks in your congregation refocus on their spiritual journeys?  Join our fall cohort of RenewalWorks participants…

The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (June 14, 2021)

3-1
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

-Psalm 51

 

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

-Luke 19:1-10

 

I think God is wanting to be known. And my experience of God wanting to be known is much more in the person who is annoying me at the moment rather than in the sunset.

-The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber

 

You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.
– Anne Lamott

Judgement

I’ve been spending a bit of time in New York City of late, which is great. And it has reminded me of an experience I had when living there a few years ago. The observation came on occasions when I was driving a car in the city. I remember coming to an intersection with a green light. I intended to make a turn. Invariably, as I sought to make the turn, there would be a pedestrian taking his or her sweet time to cross the street. I guess it was their right, annoying as that felt. After all, they had a walk signal. There was nothing to do but wait, despite cars behind me beginning to honk. I remember thinking how inconsiderate pedestrians (as a group of human beings) were in New York. Didn’t they realize they were holding up traffic? Couldn’t they pick up the pace? Did they think their slow pace was more important that other people’s schedules, specifically mine?

Then I would park the car and instantly become a pedestrian. Role reversal. And when I came to an intersection, I would take my sweet time crossing the street, even if it frustrated drivers and elicited honking. It was my right. I remember thinking how inconsiderate drivers were (as a group of human beings). And why were they driving anyway? Too good for a bus or subway? Didn’t they care about their carbon footprint?

All of which is to say that I noticed how easy it is for me to make judgments about other people. Beyond that, it is easy for me to regard the other as opponent. In many ways, it’s my default position. I suspect I’m not alone in that. Weirdly, in my case, in a matter of minutes, I became the person I had previously viewed with disdain.

Travel of all kinds will do that, whether it’s in an airport or in traffic. Road rage shows that to be true. If I’m late for a plane, I’m angry if they don’t hold the door open for me. But if I’m on time for the plane, I’m angry if they hold the door for someone else who should have been on time. If I’m made to wait a little bit on line at a store, I can make all kinds of judgments about the capabilities and character of the person behind the cash register. Maybe Covid has exacerbated the crankiness. But it’s always been there.

A similar dynamic happens on social media. It’s easy to express anger, irritation, fueled by some prejudice, some broad stroke perspective on the other. There’s often a thoughtless, thuggish character to these communications, even among church folk. Our political system does that on steroids these days, fueled by news channels that paint in broad strokes. It happens in churches of all places. We make judgments about people of other denominations, theological slants, liturgical preferences, worship styles, dress codes. All of these tensions and divisions happen at least in part because there is no real meaningful human interaction, no relationship, no place for empathy, no effort to listen, no practice of compassion (which literally means suffering with). As St. Paul asked: who will deliver us?

My observations from the streets of New York remind me of what Jesus said in the king’s English: Judge not that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye shall judge, ye shall be judged. (Matthew 7:1) If we live life in a judgmental frame of mind, we may well find judgment visited upon us.

But is there an alternative? The baptismal covenant helps. Seek and serve Christ in all persons. Respect the dignity of every human being. The teaching of Jesus, echoed throughout the New Testament, helps. That teaching issues a call to love not only our friends but our enemies.

Remember the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector who apparently ripped off a lot of his neighbors. (The story is printed in the column on the left.) He met Jesus and his life turned around. But as Jesus grabbed lunch with Zacchaeus, the religious leaders of the day criticized, judging Zacchaeus and Jesus in the process. Jesus responds: He, too, is a son of Abraham.

What would it all look like if we could view each other, in traffic, in church, in households, in the body politic, if we could treat each other as Abraham’s children, each and all of us flawed, each and all of us blessed by God? Can you join me in working on that this week?

-Jay Sidebotham


RenewalWorks: Connect is a monthly online conversation series with Jay Sidebotham, Director of RenewalWorks and other thought-leaders exploring ways to continue the work of spiritual growth. These discussions are especially helpful for those who have participated in RenewalWorks, but anyone interested in cultivating spiritual growth is encouraged to join.
Our monthly conversations will resume in September. Recordings of past sessions can be viewed here. Past presenters include:
  • Doyt Conn
  • Dawn Davis
  • Ryan Fleenor
  • Jerusalem Greer
  • Scott Gunn
  • Chris Harris
  • Rob Hirschfeld
  • Edwin Johnston
  • Lisa Kimball
  • Tina Pickering
  • Tim Schenck
  • Stephanie Spellers
  • Claire Woodley
  • Dwight Zscheile

Be sure to receive the Zoom invitation by joining the RenewalWorks: Connect email list. Click here to join.

Monday Matters (June 7, 2021)

3-1
An excerpt of a poem by Howard Thurman

Our little lives, our big problems – these we place upon Thy altar!
Brood over our spirits, Our Father,
Blow upon whatever dream Thou hast for us
That there may glow once again upon our hearths
The light from Thy Altar.
Pour out upon us whatever our spirits need of shock, of lift, of release
That we may find strength for these days –
Courage and hope for tomorrow.
In confidence we rest in Thy sustaining grace
Which makes possible triumph in defeat, gain in loss and love in hate.
We rejoice this day to say:
Our little lives, our big problems – these we place upon Thy altar.

The Collect for the Holy Eucharist, p. 252 in the Book of Common Prayer

God our Father, whose Son our Lord Jesus Christ in a wonderful Sacrament has left us a memorial of his passion: Grant us so to venerate the sacred mysteries of his Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of his redemption; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

From Henri Nouwen’s book, Life of the Beloved

As a Christian, I am called to become bread for the world: bread that is taken, blessed, broken and given.

As those who are chosen, blessed, broken and given, we are called to live our lives with a deep inner joy and peace. It is the life of the Beloved, lived in a world constantly trying to convince us that the burden is on us to prove that we are worthy of being loved.”

‘You are the Beloved’, and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being – ‘You are the Beloved.”

What did you miss?

Yesterday in church, we observed the Feast of Corpus Christi. It’s a good follow-up to Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, with its focus on God’s holy presence with us in the eucharist.

Yesterday in church, I celebrated the eucharist for the first time in too many months. That was after 30 years of celebrating the eucharist multiple times each week. It was moving to stand at the altar again. I hadn’t realized how much I missed it, or how important it was to me. Truth be told, I was a bit nervous about stepping into that presiding role again, wondering first if I would remember what to do, and second, wondering if I would melt.

We can never forget the pain inflicted by this pandemic over the past months. First and foremost, the hundreds of thousands of lives lost. Months ago, on my office wall I hung a copy of the front page of the NY Times the day they printed just a portion of the names of the first 100,000 who died. It was shocking. I didn’t want to get used to that shock. We’re now approaching 600,000 in this country and countless more around the world. Taking that all in is beyond comprehension. Stop right now for a moment of silence in remembrance.

And that is only one aspect of the loss. Children have lost a year of school. I suspect they’ll always be affected by that loss. Children in communities that lacked resources have been especially hard hit. Brave healthcare workers and others who kept us going will be shaped by this experience. There’s been widespread economic upheaval. As I walk the streets of New York, so many livelihoods have been taken away. Amidst it all, it has been a year of racial reckoning that causes us to realize how much we are missing as a community

Amidst the loss and longing, there are lessons. There are glimpses of what we have come to see as important. Community. Kindness. Care. There are discoveries about what we have missed. There are glimpses of new and deeper meanings that I hope will bring me to a new place in the days ahead. What have been those discoveries for you? For me, one of them is appreciation of the eucharist in my own spiritual life.

As I was thinking about the eucharist, my thoughts turned to the four verbs in the liturgy. The bread is taken, blessed, broken and given. (For a beautiful, wise and gracious exploration of these verbs, pick up Henri Nouwen’s book Life of the Beloved.)

I have missed taking the bread. In the eucharist, we place something basic, everyday at the center. After Covid, as we come back, maybe we can learn to see all of life as something we can offer to God for holy transformation.

I have missed blessing the bread. In the eucharist, we ask God to bless that very basic thing, to make it holy. It is God’s work. After Covid, as we come back, maybe we can learn to see all of life as an opportunity for God’s blessing. Perhaps we can extend that blessing to others, especially those who drive us nuts or wish us ill.

I have missed breaking the bread. In the eucharist, we recognize that God works in us in our brokenness, in our need for healing, a need that is universal. After Covid, as we come back, maybe eyes will be opened wider to the brokenness that surrounds us, and see that crack as a place for God’s light to shine through.

I have missed giving the bread. In the eucharist, we share that which is taken, blessed and broken. After Covid, as we come back, maybe we can grow in generosity. As the liturgy for ordination puts it, we nourish God’s people from the riches of God’s grace. Not our own grace, our own magnificence, but the boundless grace of God, broader than the measure of our minds.

Take time today to think about what you’ve missed. Maybe it has to do with your spiritual life, in one way or another. Maybe not. As you reflect, say prayers for those whose loss has been greatest. Then take time to think about what you’ve learned. This kind of reflection is a way of citing what we value. Those lessons provide opportunity for hope, as we make our way back into community. It’s hope that this season of brokenness will lead to new life, that it will be blessed and shared, as in the words of Howard Thurman, we place our lives and problems on God’s altar.

-Jay Sidebotham


Hybrid Church: A Way Forward

Join us for a conversation with the Rev. Tim Schenck
Wednesday, June 9 from 7-8pm EST

We’re all figuring out how to move forward, as we shift from the social distancing that has marked the past year and a half. What will the next chapter look like for our churches? How will we as church leaders navigate days ahead? What will we hold onto? What will we let go of? What have we learned? What will be different from the past? What will be the same?

We’re grateful that the Rev. Tim Schenck has agreed to be our presenter. He brings a distinctive mix of wit and wisdom to everything he does, and we’re excited that he will lead us when we meet on June 9.

RenewalWorks: Connect seeks to gather folks who want to continue to explore spiritual growth as priorities in their congregations. All are welcome.

Be sure to receive the Zoom invitation by joining the RenewalWorks: Connect email list. Click here to join.

Monday Matters (May 31, 2021)

3-1
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,  who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
-Philippians 2:5-11

What do you think?

I came across a verse last week which I’d never noticed before: “Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; give me life in your ways.” (Psalm 119:37) Centuries ago, I don’t know what the psalmist had in mind when writing about what was worthless to watch. Maybe the psalmist was predicting contemporary entertainment, social media, 24/7 news channels. Your guess is as good as mine.

The verse caught my eye because there’s a lot floating around which is available to watch, but that is probably not worth watching. There’s a lot floating around that is not edifying, to borrow a New Testament phrase. It may be okay, but it doesn’t build up. It’s not constructive. What we watch, what we pay attention to, what we think about shapes who we are. Don’t just take my word for it. Consider various scriptures.

Proverbs 23:7 for instance: “For as (a person) thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount put it this way: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) St. Paul coached the early church to think about what they think about: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Those truths have been picked up by others. Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “You are what you think all day long.” William James said: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” Jean Yves Leloup, writing about monkey-mind as part of his discussion of the spiritual dynamic between Buddhism and Christianity wrote: “The ego is like a clever monkey, which can co-opt anything, even the most spiritual practices, so as to expand itself.” Even Winnie the Pooh got into the act: “Did you ever stop to think and forget to start again?”

Think about what you think about. Think about what you watch. Is it worth it? Is it worthwhile? How is that shaping you? Maybe our culture’s focus on mindfulness has to do with setting an intention about where we give our interior life. We all have to decide what’s going to occupy our thinking. It’s easy to let that interior life be a place where resentments and grievances incubate. It’s easy to let anxiety dominate our thought waves. It’s easy to give into images that are not healthy or holy, let alone satiable. Toxicity abounds these days, easily accessible, at our fingertips. But we are not without options.

As St. Paul invited early Christians to focus on what is pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, we can always turn our thoughts to praise. Worship is really a matter of worth-ship. We can always turn our thoughts to thanksgiving, finding the healing power of an attitude of gratitude. We can always turn our thoughts to good intention towards others, even those who’ve done us dirt. Maybe St. Paul told us to pray without ceasing as an alternative to plotting revenge on the jerk who just cut us off in traffic. In all of life, we have the chance to turn our attention to the mind of Christ (see above). We have agency in this. And if we feel like we need help in this, we’re told that such help is available as well.

In Psalm 51, the psalmist asks God to create a clean heart, to renew a right spirit within us. As Jesus addressed the anxiety which comes our way, he reminded us to consider the lilies, the birds of the air, in other words, pay attention to something worth watching. (Matthew 6) As St. Paul contemplated the grace of God, he invited early Christians to a renewing of their minds.

Think about what you think about this week.

-Jay Sidebotham


Hybrid Church: A Way Forward

Join us for a conversation with the Rev. Tim Schenck
Wednesday, June 9 from 7-8pm EST

We’re all figuring out how to move forward, as we shift from the social distancing that has marked the past year and a half. What will the next chapter look like for our churches? How will we as church leaders navigate days ahead? What will we hold onto? What will we let go of? What have we learned? What will be different from the past? What will be the same?

We’re grateful that the Rev. Tim Schenck has agreed to be our presenter. He brings a distinctive mix of wit and wisdom to everything he does, and we’re excited that he will lead us when we meet on June 9.

RenewalWorks: Connect seeks to gather folks who want to continue to explore spiritual growth as priorities in their congregations. All are welcome.

Be sure to receive the Zoom invitation by joining the RenewalWorks: Connect email list. Click here to join.

Monday Matters (May 24, 2021)

3-1
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 
Luke 10:25-32

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” 
John 21:4-7

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.
-Viktor Frankl

The other side

The familiar story of the Good Samaritan came up in the daily lectionary last week. I tried to read it as if I’d not read it before. In doing so, I thought about who I would identify with most in the parable. The inconvenient truth was that I’m probably most like the Priest and the Levite who saw the man who’d been beaten and left to die. They saw the man and kept on going, for whatever reason. In my attempt at fresh reading, the phrase that came to me were the words: They passed by on the other side. That was their choice.

Who knows why they kept going? Maybe they were scared. Maybe they were concerned about religious defilement. Maybe they were really busy, an important church meeting to get to. Jesus didn’t seem interested in explaining why they did what they did. He just puts it out there. They passed by on the other side. That was their choice.

I recognize how I do that, not only in passing by people seated on the sidewalk or standing at an intersection, asking for money, though I do that often. There are other people I pass by, for all kinds of reasons. That passing by on the other side, a mark of privilege, can be an expression of indifference to the suffering of the world. It can be an unwillingness to engage. It can be an expression of fatigue. Problems are too grand or intractable or numerous. It can be an expression of fear. It can be an exercise in protecting boundaries. “I’ve done enough. I’m a priest, for God’s sake.”

I was bothered by the choice implied in those words “on the other side.” Where else had I heard those words? Here’s a slightly random connection. Related words surface in the end of John’s gospel when the resurrected Jesus shows up on the beach, scrambles some eggs for the disciples and gives those hapless fishermen some advice about how to do their jobs. (Note: The gospels never record the disciples catching anything without Jesus’ help.) The disciples had been fishing all night and caught nothing. Jesus tells them: Cast your nets on the right side, in other words, on the other side of the boat. They choose Jesus’ way and catch more fish than they know what to do with.

So I began to wonder, as I compared these two stories: Is Jesus calling us right now to cast our nets on the other side? We’re coming out of Covid-tide, probably fatigued, maybe fearful. In some respects, like the disciples, what we’ve been doing is not working so well. We may have been tempted like the disciples to go back to old ways, even if we weren’t very good fishermen.

These two stories present us with a choice. Going back to the Good Samaritan parable, choosing the other side may mean that we can stay in our safety lane, stay in our bubble, get to our next item on the to-do list without interruption. In that story, the other side means a pathway that dismisses or denies the needs that surround us. That may come out of a place of privilege, fatigue or fear. Where are you tempted to choose that path, for whatever reason?

Or we can hear a call to choose the other side to which the resurrected Jesus calls us. We can cast our nets for something different, something brave, something that bears fruit. As we come out of Covid, we don’t need to do what we always have done. We can hear Jesus’ invitation to something new, something beautiful for God. Where do you hear an invitation to that path this week?

-Jay Sidebotham


The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (May 17, 2021)

3-1
Jesus prayed for his disciples, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”
-John 17:6-19

What would Jesus pray?

Around the church, we often say that praying shapes believing. What we pray, what we ask for, what we think about, determines where we give our heart, one way of describing belief. As Jesus put it in the Sermon on the Mount: Where is your treasure, there will your heart be also.

I often tell folks that if you want to know what we believe about a particular liturgy, about baptism or eucharist, marriage or burial, look at the prayers in the service. Do a deeper dive by looking at the verbs in those prayers. They tell a lot about what we affirm, why we even bother with the service, and what we hope to become.

Yesterday in church, we read a portion of John 17. That whole chapter is a prayer Jesus offers, for himself, for disciples gathered with him on that night before he died, and for those who would come to faith through the ministry of the disciples. (That’s you and me, kids.) It’s enlightening to see what Jesus prays. He prays for protection for the disciples, a recognition that the world is a dangerous place. He prays for joy (different from happiness), a sense of well-being undiminished by circumstances. He prays for unity, for oneness among his followers. He’s not expecting that they will all be the same, or even always agree. How boring would that be? But he prays that they will be pulling in the same direction, bringing their diversity of gifts to make the way of love the way of the world. And since the reading was a chosen for a Sunday to observe Jesus’ ascension to heaven, the passage suggests that Jesus continues to pray for those things for us.

What do you make of the prayer for protection? Where do you feel that need? As Martin Luther put it, we live in a world with devils filled that threaten to undo us. We need a mighty fortress. A pandemic caught us all by surprise, illustrating vulnerability, a stark reminder that we are not in control. Coinciding pandemic of mass shootings and other forms of violence make that prayer all too real. All God’s children, but especially right now Israelis and Palestinians, stand in need of protection at this hour.

What do you make of a prayer for joy? When have you experienced joy, perhaps especially when circumstances told you it made no sense? Who do you know that demonstrates that kind of resilient joy? What makes them able to navigate life with that attitude?

Where have you seen the unity for which Jesus prays? His prayer indicates that the unity of his followers will be a witness to God’s activity in the world. In a time of partisan division in our society it’s often difficult to imagine unity. The message of the New Testament is that the Jesus movement strives for that unity.

The question of what Jesus would pray is instructive. Perhaps an equally important question would be: Why would Jesus pray? The gospels tell us that Jesus was always going off to pray by himself. (When he went off to pray, as God among us, wasn’t he just talking to his holy self?) I often wonder why he spent so much time doing that. He was on a mission to save the world. He had three years to do it. Time was short. Was this the best use of his time? Apparently, he thought so.

Jesus becomes our teacher in prayer. We could do worse that to follow his example and pray for protection for all God’s children, to pray for the joy of abundant life, to pray for the unity of all God’s children, a sign of God’s love at work in the world. Pray for those three things this week with specificity. From what specifically do you sense a need for protection? What do you imagine would be a source of joy? Where is there division that can be transformed into the unity that points to God’s activity in the world?

Make time for prayer. It’s a Jesus thing. Not because prayer changes God’s mind, but because prayer changes us.

-Jay Sidebotham


The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (May 10, 2021)

3-1
As they were watching, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
-Acts 1:9-14

What next?

Later this week, we will observe the Feast of the Ascension, celebrating the story told by Luke in his gospel and in the book of Acts, the story of Jesus ascending into heaven. The feast falls 40 days after Easter, which means it’s always on a Thursday, one of the reasons it doesn’t get as much notice as Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. I consider this feast to be underrated. Where would we be without it?

It’s important as a feast because it answers questions about what happened to Jesus, and where he is now, and how we should live in light of that. It opens the way for our understanding, our confidence, our hope that Jesus’ story is not just a matter of history. Jesus is is still very much with us and will be with us to the end of the ages. Our faith is more than memory.

No doubt about it, it’s a strange story which may also contribute to its underrated status. How do we make sense of it? It’s possible to get caught up in the logistics. Can modern people really believe that such a thing happened? What were the physics involved? Was gravity suspended?

Someday, maybe they’ll be answers for those logistical questions. For me, maybe the more important question is the one I imagine the disciples asked each other. They realize Jesus is gone, so what do they do now? How do they move forward? There may be times when we ask these kinds of questions.

What are the experiences that have caused you to ask: Where do I go from here? What’s next? Those kinds of questions surface when we’ve come down from a mountaintop experience, in the wake of exciting life changing events. A joyous occasion like a wedding or the birth of a child. A powerful spiritual epiphany. The same questions may come when we emerge from a valley. A relationship ends. You get fired, or experience betrayal. I’ll always remember being with a woman in the ICU as her husband of more than sixty years died. She looked up at me shortly after monitors indicated end of life and said: What do I do now? She was talking about a lot more than contacting hospital staff or funeral home.

Maybe you’re asking some version of these questions this morning. The questions are especially appropriate as we come out of Covid. This may be a season in our common life when we need the message of Ascension Day more than ever, as the feast causes us to ask: Where do we go from here? How do we arrive at a new normal? Like those disciples, we don’t know what lies ahead. It’s a pretty safe bet that our road ahead will take us to new places. New life will emerge but a lot will not be as we remember it. Maybe we’re nostalgic for a past that actually wasn’t as rosy as we wish it was. Maybe, just maybe, the old normal is not a place to which we ought to return.

The disciples heard angels’ instructions. They went back to Jerusalem. They stuck together. They prayed. They waited. They held on to promise. In due time, they experience the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise, the powerful presence of the Spirit. Maybe there’s a word in there for us.

As we navigate emergence from COVID:

  • How can we stay together in community, counting on each other for support? What community can you count on these days (even if it’s still on zoom)?
  • How can we hold prayer at the center of our forward movement, recognizing our need for God’s gracious help? What will be your prayer? What will you ask for?
  • How can we express our trust in the living Lord who promises that we will not be left alone? What promise from Jesus sustains you?

If we can do these things in this unusual season, maybe we can celebrate Ascension Day by saying that things are looking up.

-Jay Sidebotham


Our Churches After Covid:  Wednesday, May 12 at 7pm EST

Our monthly conversations resume with a discussion of where we’ve been over the last year and where we might be headed. To help us address those questions, we welcome three gifted clergy leaders:
  • The Rev. Chris Harris, Associate Rector, Christ Church Cranbrook, Bloomfield, Michigan
  • The Rev. Edwin Johnson, Rector, St. Mary’s Church, Dorchester, Massachusetts
  • The Rev. Marissa Rohrbach, Rector, St. Matthew’s Church, Wilton, Connecticut.

We’re grateful for the insights these three will offer, and we’ll make sure to have time for comments and questions.

RenewalWorks: Connect seeks to gather folks who want to continue to explore spiritual growth as priorities in their congregations. All are welcome.

Be sure to receive the Zoom invitation by joining the RenewalWorks: Connect email list. Click here to join.

Discipleship Matters: Building cultures of discipleship in the Episcopal Church

What’s next? Our churches after COVID
A conversation with three parish priests about where we go from here.

As part of our series called RenewalWorks: Connect, we’ll gather by zoom next week to talk about how we have navigated COVID and what we expect moving forward. Specifically, as we come out of a year of pandemic with all the longings and losses that have accompanied this unprecedented time, we’ll explore these questions:

  •  What will you hold onto?
  •  What will you let go of?
  •  What will you do differently?

We’ll begin our time by hearing from three gifted leaders in the church. Then we’ll enter into conversation with each other, fielding questions or comments you may have. We’re grateful to be guided in this conversation by these fine priests, introduced below:

Wednesday, May 12 at 7-8pm (EST)

Click here to join the RW: Connect email list so you will receive the Zoom invite to join us!

The Rev. Chris Harris serves as Associate Rector at Christ Church Cranbrook, coming most recently from San Diego. Chris serves on the Board of Directors of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS) and as a member of the steering team for Invite-Welcome-Connect, a national evangelism ministry. Chris is also the creator of Living Wi$ley, a faith and personal finance ministry and is a national speaker on congregational development topics, including The Consortium for Endowed Episcopal Parishes (CEEP), The Episcopal Church Foundation (EFC), and Evangelism Matters. Chris is married to Joe, a native of Sterling Heights, Michigan. Chris and his husband have two twin girls, Gianna and Aleena.

The Rev. Edwin Johnson is a self-described “smiling-dancing-Jesus-freak” who has served as Rector of St. Mary’s Church, Dorchester, Massachusetts since 2013, aiming to “inspire and empower God’s people to live into and bring forth God’s diverse, just and joyful Kingdom.” A graduate of Tufts University and Church Divinity School of the Pacific, he now provides liturgical, pastoral, visional and missional leadership in a multilingual, multicultural urban context. Under his leadership, his parish has been revitalized, through preaching and formation for all ages, empowering lay people, establishing systems to support parish life and growth. He brings considerable skills in church planting and fundraising for new ministries, and shares his gifts for music and dance. His engagement with the wider church includes leadership in Beloved Community implementation and support of racial reconciliation throughout the Episcopal Church. Edwin and his partner Susan have two sons, Francisco and Santiago. As a family they enjoy getting out into creation and spending time with extended family and friends throughout the U.S., in Central America and the Caribbean.

The Rev. Marissa Rohrbach serves as Rector of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Wilton, Connecticut. She has served around the Church and in the diocese of Connecticut in a variety of ways, including as Chair of the Commission on Ministry, a consultant for parishes, and is currently serving on the Bishop Search Committee. Marissa is particularly fascinated by the formation of lay and ordained people as disciples, liturgics, and French Renaissance literature. She loves Jesus and is grateful for the privilege of serving God’s people. Marissa lives in Wilton with her wife, Lyn, and their beagle, Becket, who is named for the saint and martyr.

Please join us for this important conversation, a conversation that will be enhanced by your presence. And feel free to invite others! Click here to join the RW: Connect email list so you will receive the Zoom invite to join us!

RenewalWorks: Connect is intended as a way to build community for those who have participated in RenewalWorks, those who might be thinking about participating, and for any who simply want to explore with others what it means to be a disciple today in the Episcopal Church. We welcome all who are interested to join us. Contact The Rev. Jay Sidebotham with questions or comments.

 

Monday Matters (May 3, 2021)

3-1
May God give you grace never to sell yourself short, grace to risk something big for something good, and grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.

-A prayer attributed to William Sloane Coffin

 

Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
-John 8:32

IN SOLEMN REMEMBRANCE OF THE ENSLAVED PERSONS WHOSE LABOR CREATED WEALTH THAT MADE POSSIBLE THE FOUNDING OF ST. JAMES’ CHURCH, HAMILTON SQUARE, 1810.
Christ have mercy.

-Text of plaque near entrance to St. James’ Church in New York City

Jesus came to comfort the afflict and afflict the comfortable.
A saying originally attributed to journalists about their work,
but adapted to the Christian context by Martin Marty in 1987

Standing on sacred ground

“We don’t know what we don’t know.” That’s been a key principle in our work with congregations, based on the idea that as disciples (a.k.a., students, learners), there is always more for us to discover in the journey of faith. We can always go deeper. That means we are ready to find new dimensions of the good news of God’s amazing grace. It also means that there can be difficult learnings about ourselves along the way, as light shines in darkened places.

Over the past couple of months, my spiritual journey has been shaped by a series of discussions called Sacred Ground, an excellent program put together by the Episcopal Church. It helps us reflect on where we’ve been, where we are and where we are called to go as church and society, based on our nation’s grim history of racial divide.

I’ve always prided myself (an attitude which usually doesn’t end well) on being a student of history and politics. I watch a lot of news. I consider myself well-informed and fairly enlightened. (Again, red flags should be going up.) But what I learned in this series has challenged and chastened me. There’s a lot of history I either didn’t know, was not taught, chose not to know, or benefited from not knowing. Separation of children from parents in indigenous communities in Maine, as just one expression of a war on Native Americans. Apparent perpetuation of de facto slavery long after the Emancipation Proclamation, through Jim Crow and mass incarceration. Chinese workers ostracized and denied opportunity to start families on the West Coast. Mexicans in Texas and California whose land was taken from them. As I traveled these ten weeks with others, the group of folks in these discussions repeatedly confessed that there was a lot we hadn’t known. Were we asleep? Were we misled? Were we too busy savoring privilege?

This Monday morning, I’m sharing the experience that I was woefully ignorant or willfully blind to histories of violence and abuse, prejudice and injustice, dynamics in which family and friends participated (as well as yours truly) for this reason. I believe that my ignorance and/or willful blindness are fundamentally spiritual issues, issues of discipleship. In RenewalWorks, we speak of the importance of pastoring the community. Addressing these issues in a pastoral way is key to the vitality of congregations, to the healing of the world, to the healing of my soul.

On recent Sundays, we’ve been reading from New Testament letters attributed to John. They talk about love, which is sweet, but with this edge. They say if you say you love God but dis your neighbor, good luck with that (my translation). Until we recognize the truth that good church people (like me) have participated in the tragic brokenness of human relations, in the systemic denigration of whole groups of God’s children in our own history, there will not be healing.

A theme in the last of our ten sessions was truth and reconciliation, the most notable example being work led by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu as apartheid fell apart in South Africa. Since that time, others have taken on this work in other contexts, based on the premise that reconciliation, healing, wholeness will not emerge without first being truthful about what has taken place. That’s true for societies, for nations. It’s true for churches. The church where I am serving here in New York put up a plaque for passersby to see. It’s a small step, but it speaks truth. (See text included above)

That’s true for us as individuals, in family relationships, in neighborhoods and workplaces, in relationships with people who differ from us. Our liturgy provides an opportunity for weekly (and if you so desire, daily) individual truth and reconciliation commissions, as the Confession invites us to consider what we have done that we ought not to have done, what we left undone that we ought to have done. The Confession offers the following statement which is true every day of my life, true before my feet even hit the floor when I wake up: I have not loved God with my whole heart. I have not loved neighbor as self.

The prologue to John’s gospel tells us that Jesus came to live among us, full of grace and truth. Lord knows, we need both. Later in the gospel, Jesus tells those with ears to hear that the truth will set them free. I’m grateful to have discovered a few of my own growth opportunities through Sacred Ground. Now I’m wondering: what are ways I can keep learning and then participate in reconciliation and healing? How would you answer that question for yourself this week?

-Jay Sidebotham


Our Churches After Covid:  Wednesday, May 12 at 7pm EST

Our monthly conversations resume with a discussion of where we’ve been over the last year and where we might be headed. To help us address those questions, we welcome three gifted clergy leaders:
  • The Rev. Chris Harris, Associate Rector, Christ Church Cranbrook, Bloomfield, Michigan
  • The Rev. Edwin Johnson, Rector, St. Mary’s Church, Dorchester, Massachusetts
  • The Rev. Marissa Rohrbach, Rector, St. Matthew’s Church, Wilton, Connecticut.

We’re grateful for the insights these three will offer, and we’ll make sure to have time for comments and questions.

RenewalWorks: Connect seeks to gather folks who want to continue to explore spiritual growth as priorities in their congregations. All are welcome.

Be sure to receive the Zoom invitation by joining the RenewalWorks: Connect email list. Click here to join.

Monday Matters (April 26, 2021)

3-1

Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
-Psalm 29

A Prayer for Church Musicians and Artists:
O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be ever present with your servants who seek through art and music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled forevermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Final stanza of hymn:  Fairest Lord Jesus
All fairest beauty,
Heavenly and earthly,
Wondrously, Jesus, is found in Thee;
None can be nearer,
Fairer, or dearer,
Than Thou my Savior art to me.

First two stanzas of hymn: For the beauty of the earth
For the beauty of the earth, For the beauty of the skies, For the Love which from our birth over and around us lies: Christ, our God, to Thee we raise,
This our Sacrifice of Praise.
For the beauty of each hour, Of the day and of the night, Hill and vale, and tree and flower, Sun and moon and stars of light: Christ, our God, to Thee we raise, This our Sacrifice of Praise.

Beauty

I like my routines. Truth be told, I’m a little nutty about them. Family can attest. I wake up same time every morning. Set my phone for duration of morning devotions. Then a certain amount of time for exercise. Then a walk for another fixed period of time, no more, no less, timed exactly for the top of the hour newscast, which I watch for a prescribed amount of time. Then on to tasks of day, with both a full and an abridged to-do list, ready for things to be crossed off. I sometimes add things to the list that I’ve already done so I can cross them off. Nutty. Even and especially in COVID, it has been important for me to observe rituals, rigidly keeping this rhythm.

Unless, as happened last week, I’m on my fixed period of walking along the shore and up ahead, in the early morning light, I see a crowd gathered. As I near this group, I see that they are focused on about half a dozen dolphins, literally about six feet from water’s edge, as close to the shore as I’ve ever seen. It is simply beautiful. I stand and watch. I walk back and forth with the dolphins, joined by some other folks. Not much else mattered in those moments. Time kind of stopped. Well constructed morning routine became irrelevant. Beauty and grace interrupted daily ritual.

The church where I serve these days is observing the Easter season by focusing on the beauty of holiness. Members of the congregation engaged with creative activity (music, art, poetry, architecture, liturgy) share how those explorations bring them in closer touch with God. After a year of COVID, amidst seasons of violence, it feels meet and right to focus on the lovely and loving ways God’s holy presence can still shine through. Of course, we add to those artistic endeavors the celebration of the beauty of creation. We just observed Earth Day, which tells us that we are surrounded by the results of the divine intention to create beauty. As the psalmist says, the earth is filled with God’s love.

I noted recently that Christ Church Cranbrook includes “Sharing Beauty” in its 4-fold vision statement. That comes from Strategic Planning conversations where a team identified the unique ability for art and music to mediate differences and distances (such as urban Detroit and suburban Bloomfield Hills), but also culture, race, as well as its unique power to speak the gospel. (Check out the Cranbrook Project, the programmatic arm of that vision, as well as partnerships with the arts community of Detroit. The Cranbrook Project – CCC

The goals of the Cranbrook Project are to:

  • Enhance cooperation between different religious, ethnic, racial and economic communities in Metropolitan Detroit;
  • Encourage collaboration between activists, artists, academics, and members of the interfaith community in Southeastern Michigan;
  • Foster greater social engagement and responsibility through Jazz, Contemporary Art, and the Environment;
  • Support Christ Church Cranbrook as a beacon for community engagement, leadership, and care for the wider community.

And all of it has to do with beauty.

Undergirding all of this is the beauty of God’s love. Grace, a rich word, suggests unmerited favor. It also suggests beauty. Isaiah puts it this way: How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (Isa. 52:7) So we gather, even in COVID-tide, called by the refrain throughout the psalms which invites us to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

Newsflash: There is much in our world that is not beautiful. Our reflection on beauty does not deny that harsh reality. But maybe this week in the rhythms and rituals of our lives, we can take the time and make the space, allowing beauty to interrupt, giving thanks for where we see it, recognizing it as reflection of God’s nature, in the process allowing us to build bridges where there is division.

Here’s a thought: each day this week, take a few minutes to savor a work of art, or listen to a piece of music, or get out in nature where God’s creativity interrupts. Let it lead you to worship. Let it bring you joy.

-Jay Sidebotham


Our Churches After Covid

Wednesday, May 12 at 7pm EST

Our monthly conversations resume with a discussion of where we’ve been over the last year and where we might be headed. To help us address those questions, we welcome three gifted clergy leaders:
  • The Rev. Chris Harris, Associate Rector, Christ Church Cranbrook, Bloomfield, Michigan
  • The Rev. Edwin Johnson, Rector, St. Mary’s Church, Dorchester, Massachusetts
  • The Rev. Marissa Rohrbach, Rector, St. Matthew’s Church, Wilton, Connecticut.

We’re grateful for the insights these three will offer, and we’ll make sure to have time for comments and questions.

RenewalWorks: Connect seeks to gather folks who want to continue to explore spiritual growth as priorities in their congregations. All are welcome.

Be sure to receive the Zoom invitation by joining the RenewalWorks: Connect email list. Click here to join.